With an annual turnover of more than £230 million, 52,000 homes and supporting over 18,000 people across the UK, Home Group is one of the UK’s largest housing providers. Housing Technology interviewed Keith Woolley, director of IT at Home Group and a relatively new arrival to social housing, to find out his view on the role of technology for housing providers, how well IT companies serve this sector, and about Home Group’s business and technology plans.
What have been Home Group’s recent IT successes?
Our key achievement has been the deployment of an integrated and intuitive collaboration platform that is now supporting the whole of the business – this has been identified by PwC as a major technology platform for enhancing our customers’ lives. This is in addition to a complete refresh of our entire server and desktop infrastructure, ensuring that Home has an agile technology environment that also supports our dedication to green IT.
Looking ahead, the major rollout for the next 12 months is a fully-integrated CRM suite so that we can improve our customer experience and respond to their needs. This is supported by a redesign and new implementation of an enterprise data warehouse and data mart that is linked to our corporate business plan through Business Objects.
How does technology support Home’s wider business goals?
Technology is a significant enabler for Home Group and has played a significant part over the last five years, but more can and will be done. This is reflected in the ongoing support from our board and the executive – our CEO is a real champion for what IT can achieve for our customers and has high expectations of the strategic direction that the IT department can offer.
This year will see an increase in our IT budget due to our technology plans mentioned earlier. However, year-on-year operational costs for IT have been reduced due to the efficiencies gained through repeatable processes and approved policies. To that end, the IT department has reduced its operational costs by over £500,000 year-on-year while significantly improving customer satisfaction.
What are your key technology applications and platforms?
We are primarily a ‘Microsoft house’ and use the integrated Microsoft stack. Additional specialist systems are provided through IBS OpenHousing and Business Objects. Home Group is proud to base its core technologies on HP and Cisco hardware and delivers its thin-client services through our strategic partner, Citrix.
In common with most large organisations, application integration is an important area for us. We have adopted a best practice approach to application integration using open standards such as XML and BizTalk. However, that does not mean that integration to our housing and finance systems is easy. By developing bespoke business solutions through the PNMSoft Sequence workflow engine, we have been able to rapidly develop a contractor interface that is currently being used with many of Home Group’s partners for delivering responsive repairs. However, more needs to be done with the software vendors in this area to help Home Group and other housing providers.
What are the main technology trends in social housing?
Rationalisation and standardisation are key. The Decent Homes standard is driving the smaller RSLs hard and they are looking for more cost-effective technologies, such as software as a service (SaaS), to deliver their business objectives. At the same time, larger RSLs are looking hard at their stock footprints and identifying partnerships that could complement services through joint ventures or stock transfers. The ability for technology to seamlessly handle this is paramount over the next three years.
How well is technology used by housing providers in general?
Having worked with major blue-chip technology companies around the world over the last 15 years, this sector is on the start of its journey. Although my personal experience so far has been poor, it is getting better and the sector is slowly coming around to valuing technology.
However, I expect that there will be rapid transformation, with housing providers becoming much more demanding, challenging and innovative as we go into 2010 and beyond. At the same time, the TSA wants to see added value and tenant involvement and I see technology driving this requirement for those willing to embrace it, thereby securing long-term financial viability and excellent customer engagement.
In terms of technology suppliers, the sector is currently supported, for the most part, by smaller software companies that only respond reactively to customer needs, rather than being proactive and innovative. However, we are now seeing the larger, and sometimes global, technology suppliers looking at the social housing sector and looking for strategic delivery partners; this is where I see Home Group moving beyond the competition.